Saturday, 31 January 2015

Hodd - Adam Thorpe


I first discovered Adam Thorpe when I picked up Ulverton from the carousel at my local library.  The structure intrigued me but, as explained in my review on this blog, it didn't satisfy me.  The key device was stretched too far.

Hodd, though, was written twenty years later (2010) and Thorpe is able to subordinate his clever literary devices to a complex yet cohesive narrative.  It works well - extremely well.

Essentially what we have is the translation of a medieval monastic manuscript about Robin Hood.  Our translator, the supplier of footnotes and marginalia, is a real character deeply mentally scarred by his experiences in World War One.  We come to know him through his textual comments but he never dominates.  The book is about the text, which turns out to be the proto-text for all Robin Hood legends.  I don't think I am giving anything away by saying that our medieval monk turns out to be the creator of the first and best-known Hood ballad.  The monk is compelling; he is turned ninety and knew Hood personally as a boy, a century ago.  Who is he?  In real life we never find out, but it is a major revelation (which I obviously won't spoil here) when we find out how he fits into the Hood mythology.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it remains the monk's story, not Hood's.  The boy had an interesting and unusual life before encountering the outlaw and it is that part of his life which draws him back to his roots for the dark finale, his last experience of the non-monastic world.

Let's be clear, Thorpe began as a fascinating and important writer with Ulverton.  I don't know (and must find out) when he made the breakthrough into a fully-fledged great modern novelist, but he certainly is one in Hodd.  My highest recommendation.  A must-read.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Animal Farm – George Orwell


Perhaps the ultimate classic of left-wing English literature in the Twentieth Century, Animal Farm deserves re-reading at various stages in life.  I read it at school, enjoyed it, but didn’t really get the allusions.  I’ve re-read it now, as I approach one of life’s later milestones.  I get the references now, pretty well all of them, and I still enjoy the book at its surface level.  As a child I probably identified with either Boxer the hero-carthorse, or Snowball the renegade porcine revolutionary.  Now I identify with Benjamin the grumpy but long-lived donkey.
What has to be remembered is that Orwell wrote his satire in 1945 when Russia was our number one ally and, incredible as it seems to us now, suffered censorship for daring the criticise the regime.  It doesn’t seem strange that he was censored because we still are (as Orwell himself said in the suppressed preface, “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that is largely voluntary); no, the incredible thing is that the silent censors were pro-Russian.  Today, of course, you can have a profitable career writing any old bollocks about Russia so long as it’s hostile.
What I really liked about this 1989 Penguin edition is that it assumes you are literate and reasonably knowledgeable.  There are, thankfully, no pompous notes or tendentious polemics from the editor.  There is an introduction by Malcolm Bradbury, currently in post-mortem obscurity and probably overrated in life, but who at least understood satire and the Eastern Bloc, and a note on the text from the editor Peter Davison which I certainly found useful.  To flesh out the volume (the fable itself is only 95 pages) we have the original preface aforementioned and a further preface for the Ukrainian edition which I skipped.
The best thing about the fable is its length.  I don’t know how much Orwell re-wrote or cut; what we are left with, however, is just about perfect.  There are enough twists and turns to keep us hooked and sufficient jokes to remind us that it is, after all, a caprice.

Great fun from a good writer at his peak.  What more could we want?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Jack of Spies - David Downing


Downing is the author of six espionage novels featuring John Russell and Effi Koenen set in Nazi Germany.  Jack of Spies (1913) is the first of a new series featuring gentleman spy Jack McColl in the lead-up to and during World War I.  This first volume takes us from 1913 to immediately after the outbreak of war.

There is a great deal to recommend the book and much to look forward to in the series.  The problem is, it is entirely an introduction to the series and does not stand as a novel in its own right.  First mistake: Jack has met his love interest before the novel begins, so we are denied any real character or narrative development there.  Secondly, the antagonist (who is all-too-clearly planned to continue through the series) is nowhere near antagonistic enough; indeed he serves very little purpose.  Instead of having the single enclosed world of the first series, Jack is all over the world in the space of a few months (China, America, Mexico, London, Ireland) and seriously wounded twice with no significant recuperation or impairment despite the constrained timescale.  Thus we have no opportunity for meaningful characterisation outside Jack himself.  The story is patchy and somewhat pointless.  The description of setting is good and convincing but I am left with no idea what anyone looks like.

I have an unread ebook of Zoo Station, which I look forward to reading, and will certainly read the next McColl novel.  But they had better be more satisfactory novels in their own right than Jack of Spies for me to stay onboard.

As a footnote, this is a very well made physical artifact of a book from Old St, a publisher I haven't come across before.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons


Gibbons published Cold Comfort Farm to tremendous acclaim in 1932, when she was thirty years old.  Her career lasted another fifty years but sadly her gift didn't.  Some of her later novels, like Westwood are perfectly acceptable, but others, including Conference at Cold Comfort Farm simply are not.  It has it's moments, mostly involving Adam Lambsbreath and his cows, but the futurism which made the original so startling, and the cutting satire, are wholly absent.  I qualify satire with cutting because there is satire here, but it is pointless.  I'm sure that even in 1949 everyone knew that the surge of postwar enthusiasm and experimentalism was inherently ridiculous.  Flora, now married to a vicar and the mother of several, has become conservative, even regressive.  In place of indignation, she regards events with bemused detachment which, even in a paltry 159 pages, becomes a tad tiresome.

Whilst I remain convinced that everyone should read Cold Comfort Farm, I am sorry to report that no one need bother with this trivial sequel.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Private Angelo - Eric Linklater


Is Angelo Linklater's masterpiece?  It may well be.  Arguments can be made for the two Don Juan novels, and some of his books for children are classics in their own right, but I suspect Angelo is the one that will count.

Written in 1945 and published in 1946, Angelo was Linklater's first novel since immediately before the outbreak of war.  This was not because of block but because Linklater was a genuine war hero.  Shot in the head in World War 1, by the time Chamberlain made the war broadcast on September 3 1939 Linklater was already on active duty guarding Scapa Flow.

Within a few months the famous novelist had been seconded to the Ministry of Information, for whom he produced the official history of significant battles, all of them glorious defeats.  This led him to collaborate on radio versions with the BBC which in turn led to his famous series of dramatic 'conversations' which were tremendously popular and upon which I appear to be the world expert.

The last conversation was Rabelais Replies in 1943.  Linklater then returned to active service, based in Italy between the Italian surrender and the Allied clearance of the Germans from Italy.  This is the period in which the bulk of Angelo is set.

Angelo is the soldierly everyman, good-hearted and dutiful enough but lacking the dono di corragio.  As with all moralities, from Everyman itself to Pilgrim's Progress, his adventures lead to him finding that which he started out lacking.  All of it is done with Linklater's characteristic humour - he is a comic novelist in the tradition of Dickens and Compton Mackenzie.  But much as Linklater admired the fighting man, he absolutely loathed the political nincompoops who led the world into war.  And he says so, several times.  Passages here reflect the tone of his first and best radio conversation The Cornerstones (1941).

I can't pretend I like The Cornerstones when I skimmed through it nine or ten years ago.  Since then I have discovered and anatomised Linklater's radio work, learned about his impressive life, measured his considerable literary achievement and come to love some of his novels.  That absolutely includes Private Angelo, which should be on every school syllabus instead of puffed-up guff from writers who weren't there and didn't understand.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dreaming of Babylon - Richard Brautigan


Dreaming of Babylon, subtitled "A Private Eye Novel, 1942", is Brautigan's skewed take on a hard-boiled private eye thriller.  C Card (no first name given) wanted to be a cop but failed the exam.  He is now a completely failed gumshoe, in hock to family and friends, reduced to bumping into blind beggars and purloining some of the spilled coins for himself.  Now, inexplicably, he is offered a paying job by a glamorous femme fatale who puts away beer like there's no tomorrow without ever needing to go to the lavatory.

Card's problem is that he spends his life dreaming of Babylon.  OK, it's not an entirely accurate dream of the historical empire - sometimes he's a band leader on Babylonian radio - but it's a rich source of escapism for a private dick down on his luck.  Even now his luck seems to be changing, his first resort is always to slip into a Babylonian daydream.  This naturally gets in the way of his efforts to borrow a gun with bullets in it.  And even when he's hired, why is everyone else trying to steal the same corpse.

Wild, wacky, brimful of typical Brautigan diversions.  Great fun from a forgotten master.